This post is a follow-up to the Adult’s Tournament Survival Guide I posted a week or 2 ago. Here I go into more detail on what exactly happens during the day and what you can expect for yourself and your students. [Caveat: I’ve only ever been to tournaments in Northern California and Worlds, so things may operate a little differently where you are. Check the RobotEvents page for your tournament for the exact schedule for your tournament and and important details.]

Before You Go

Mentor-to-mentor here: do everything in your power to make sure that your kids show up to the competition with (student-built) fully functioning robots. On our previous team, there were often teams still building and programming the robot in the pits, at the competition. This is not fun, for anyone. It’s incredibly stressful, and not particularly productive.

Show up with complete, functioning, programmed robots.

Consider Volunteering

As mentioned in the Adult’s Tournament Survival Guide, tournament organizers (called “Event Partners” in VEX lingo) are always happy to have more help. Adults coming with you who are not actively involved with the team during the day can be judges, help with inspection or check-in, referee, etc., and students not on the drive team can volunteer their time as field resetters for a few hours, do afternoon take-down, and so on. However your team would like to help, the organizers can probably work with that, but you need to let them know ahead of time. See the “Volunteer” tab on your tournament’s RobotEvents page and contact the organizers to see where they could use your assistance.

7:15–8:45am – Check-In

Clock clipartAs I mentioned in my previous post, robotics tournaments start EARLY. Check-in for my area is usually 7 or 7:15am. You can check-in for about a 1.5-hour window. I recommend getting there as early as you can, so your team has time to get themselves oriented, and get through inspection before there’s an enormous line (at some point of the morning, there will be an enormous line).

At registration, one adult for your group will check in your team(s) and hand in the VEX Permission Forms to the volunteers running the table. In return, they will give you your robot “package” (1 for each robot, or all robots together in one envelope). Usually this package includes a map of the pits so you can find your home as well as drive-team badges—either stick-on name tags, or on a lanyard of some sort. Don’t misplace these; they’re important.

This is the time for mentors to make sure the students get unpacked and that your pit area is set up in a useful way, given the space constraints of your tournament’s pit area. Some pit tables are more equal than others… Our worst was being assigned in one cafeteria to a dining booth — like you would see at McDonald’s, where you have to slide into the plastic benches, which are bolted to the wall. It was basically entirely useless because people had to move all the time if more than 1 person wanted to sit on each bench, or even access the rear part of the table (also bolted to the wall). Our finest hour, OTOH, was when we were at a long cafeteria table with attached benches … and the team assigned to the other half never showed up!

Engineering Notebook

REC-provided engineering notebookAt most (but not all) tournaments, your team turns in its engineering notebook at this time, so be prepared and have it on hand. It’s not useful if it’s at the bottom of a box in someone else’s car who’s late.

Judges sit in a secluded room somewhere and review the teams’ notebooks during the day, and these evaluations are combined with the roving judges’ reports to determine award winners. Sometimes it’s the same set of judges who do interviewing and notebooks, and sometimes there’s one group of judges that looks at all of the notebooks.

Notebooks are available for teams to pick up after the regular matches are complete at the end of the day (but before the playoffs start).

If there is any vital information in the notebook that the team needs during the day, make sure they have a separate copy of that information, as (90+% of the time, in my experience) they will not have any access to their notebook during the day. At a small number of events, the students keep their notebooks, and the judges look at them in the pits as they walk around.


Checklist clipartOnce your robots are checked in, team members take the robot to the tournament’s inspection area. Usually 2-3 people is a useful number of kids for one robot; any more than that and it’s too crowded, and most of them have nothing to do.

VEX publishes its Inspection Checklist that all teams should download and read closely—both mentors and students—before their first tournament. Doing so will allow your team to be prepared with all of the things that they need to bring along with them and don’t have to run back to the table. You’ll also avoid any surprises about rules you maybe weren’t aware of! They also publish a more detailed inspection guide for the tournament organizers with all the specs. The big items:

  1. Bring
    • red and blue license plates for each robot
    • all joysticks that you plan to use (either 1 or 2 per robot)
    • VEXNet keys in joystick & robot
    • installed 9-volt backup battery
    • RobotC/easyC competition program loaded onto the cortex
    • a charged battery on the robot; the students will need to drive it briefly at inspection
  2. Size limitation. The organizers will have either a metal arch (which any team can purchase), or a clear plastic box that they will place over the robot. In the case of the arch, they hold it perpendicular to the table and run it length-wise and cross-wise over the robot. If the robot touches the arch or the plastic box at all, it will not pass (new this year; previously it was OK to touch a little bit).
  3. Competition SwitchField Control. The inspectors will plug in a field-control switch to your team’s joystick and have the team drive it around on the ground; the robot should not be able to move when they switch to “disabled” and in autonomous mode, the robot should not react to the joysticks in any way. VEX publishes a detailed description of what the inspectors look for in this test.
  4. Sharp Edges. They check to make sure that your robot doesn’t have sharp edges or poke-y bits sticking out. If you have cut c-channels, make sure that they are filed down and smooth before inspection. We failed on this item once.
  5. VEX Inspection PTC AuthenticatorPTC Verification Testing. I started to include the details here in this post, but the description just got too long! Please see my separate post about this test, which is used to determine whether teams have unfairly tampered with their motors.

If a robot does not pass inspection, the students need to go back to the pits and fix whatever is wrong, and then get back in line—at the end of the line. It’s in everyone’s interest to pass inspection early, the first time. At larger tournaments, the organizers will post a list of all the teams on the “scoreboard” screens, with different colors indicating: passed inspection; not inspected yet/did not pass; have not yet checked in. If your students have passed inspection but their team number is not showing in green, someone needs to go and get that handled—check with the inspectors, or ask at the registration table who is responsible for that item.

8am – Practice Field

In The Zone - field view

Note: practice field looks nothing like this. Imagine 8 robots here, plus people climbing in & out…

After your robot(s) pass inspection, there will be some sitting-around time. Most students try to make use of this time by practicing driving on the (one and only) practice field provided by the tournament organizers. You can imagine the insanity. There are often 8 robots at a time on the field. Young or inexperienced teams will probably feel intimidated; people can get very aggressive. In my previous post, I recommended that you bring 4 field tiles and some game objects with you; if your team can’t get on the practice field, they can at least test some of their autonomous code on the side of the room on your own private mini-field.

Later in the day, the practice field will empty out, but between check-in and the driver’s meeting (and sometimes until half-way through the morning), it’s kinda crazy and you’ll have to evaluate whether it’s a good use of your team’s time to venture over there.

All that said, our least-favorite tournament setup was where there was NO practice field! We’d definitely have preferred one busy field to 0 fields.

8:45am – Driver’s Meeting

JoystickAll students on the drive team (1, 2, or 3 people, wearing their “drive team” badges) assemble in the stands and the event organizer reviews some basic rules with everyone. My girls tell me that it’s mostly stuff they already know, but needs to be said aloud nonetheless. It lasts about 15 minutes.

It is the responsibility of drive team members to get themselves to the meeting on time; frequently you cannot hear P.A. announcements in the pit area; just because you don’t hear an announcement doesn’t mean you can skip it.

9am – Match Schedule

Schedule empty gridShortly after all teams have passed inspection, the organizers will create and distribute a paper copy of the match schedule, 1 to each robot team. After they’ve delivered them all, send an adult over to the administrative/check-in table and pick up a few extra copies for the mentors in your group.

Once your students have schedule-in-hand, give them each a highlighter pen and set them to highlighting their robot’s matches on the schedule. They should compare notes after this process to make sure they all have the same number of matches during the day; it’s an easy way to make sure no one skipped over a match in their reading. In our area, a typical tournament includes 5-6 matches.

Our team also has a pit area checklist that we use before every match to make sure we haven’t forgotten anything. The top several rows of this checklist are filled in at this time from the match schedule: match number, time, license plate color, alliance partner, which field, etc.

Make note of where your teams have matches very close together (like, match 31 and match 34), as people will probably not have time to return to the pits in between; help your newbies manage that process.

Match Times…Not So Much

I’ve been to some tournaments where things were managed amazingly well, practically to the minute. I’ve been to other tournaments that have had small problems, delaying the starting time by 10-15 minutes. Other events have had more major issues, like a 30-minute oops-downtime when switching from regular matches to the playoffs, to our worst-ever, a tournament that started 2 hours late, and had to cut everyone’s matches from 7 per team down to 4. In cases where things do not run like clockwork … don’t spend time looking at the clock. It’s a much better plan to keep track of your match numbers than the match time. Video screens and announcements will generally reference match number.

Students often write their match numbers on the back of their hands or on their arms with pen or sharpie, so that they don’t have to keep consulting the schedule during the day. My team has created a “match board” that we set up when schedules are distributed. We use pink or blue sticky notes, depending which color alliance we are on, and there’s 1 row for each match, and includes all of those items from the checklist again. Since it’s hanging up, everyone is able to see the important information at a glance. We hang this board from the back of our standing banner frame; when each match is done, we take off those stickies and toss them.

VEX Via App

VEX Via app logoDownload this app before you go. It’s great for following your team’s matches and rankings during the day. That said, nothing beats paper. The app is great for following along and seeing scores throughout the day, but the system doesn’t always update well, and sometimes the tournament organizer just cannot get the tournament software to talk to the app software at all, making it not-so-great for showing up to matches on time.

Tournaments also generally post match results in near-real-time to the “Results” tab on their RobotEvents page. However, we have been to a number of tournaments were RobotEvents did not show any results data until the next day.

As mentioned in the Adult’s Tournament Survival Guide, be prepared for no WiFi, and to be sitting in a building with 500 nerds, all using multiple devices; connectivity will be slow, and mobile hot-spots are not permitted, as it interferes with the scoring table’s software.

9:15am – Qualifying Matches

There are 2 types of matches in a VEX tournament, and I have to remind myself which is which every time: Qualifying and Elimination.

Qualifying matches are the all-day-lots-o-matches sort. Why are they called this? Because they qualify your team for the playoffs. Elimination matches are the end-of-day playoffs, and are called this because once you lose a round (quarter-finals, semis, finals), you are eliminated from contention. My brain can easily imagine definitions that work the other way, but I will try not to spread my confusion.

Qualifying matches go on all day, and your team(s) will have down-time in between each, where they return to the pits and do fixing or maintenance (changing batteries, license plates, etc.).

Our team usually figures out where their largest break(s) during the day are, when they will go to the Skills Challenge (see below).

Things Will Go Wrong

No matter how well your students prepare, and how awesome their robot is, unexpected things will happen at tournaments that make people unhappy. Stuff breaks. Other robots bang into yours, and maybe even tip you over. Autonomous code fails to run. The joysticks lose connectivity with the field/robot. Someone forgets to turn on the robot. All of these things happen to everyone at one time or another. If this happens to your team, be assured that you are not alone.

The kids’ default reaction will probably be freaking out, so it’s up to you as a mentor to keep everyone calm. No blaming. Was it caused by external factors? Or was it a problem with their robot or joysticks? Or was it something that they did/failed to do? If it’s a problem with the robot, it will probably help if you can calmly walk them through diagnosing the problem, and then figure out what is possible to change in the time available. You can even ask other teams for assistance if they seem inclined to do so.

(All Day) Judging

VEX Design AwardIf you’re new to judged awards, please read my earlier post about VEX Judged Awards and the Engineering Notebook & Design Award.

Judging is usually handled one of two ways (I’ve never seen any other ways, but I only know how things are handled in my area). At most events, judge pairs are assigned a handful of teams to interview, and they wander the pit area during the day, and try to track down teams in between matches. They stay for ~10 minutes and the students tell the judges about their robot and answer questions from the judges. If judges seem interested in your team, they will frequently send a second set of judges to come & talk to the students in a follow-up interview.

At other tournaments, judges are given separate (quiet) rooms where they sit and teams parade through their room and give them the spiel. The judging-room schedule typically has absolutely nothing to do with the match schedule, and is often assigned before the match schedule is created. Teams then have to figure out what to do to rearrange their judging time should there be a conflict. Your (adult) help on figuring this out and the right people to talk to will probably be valuable. In judging-room tournaments, another group of judges may come around the pits later in the day to ask follow-up questions if they’re interested in you.

12pm – Lunch Break! (Sometimes)

Pizza boxesAt tournaments in my area, everything comes to a halt for one hour in the middle of the day, starting sometime after 11:30am. Tournaments in other areas forego the lunch break in order to accommodate more matches, allow more skills runs, or to end the day earlier. Check RobotEvents for your tournament to confirm.

As mentioned in the Adult’s Tournament Survival Guide, many events will organize pizza for purchase. In my area, all pizza order forms and $$ must be handed in by 9am or so. If you have kids or adults on your team with dietary restrictions, make sure they are prepared with their own food.

We bring most of our food from home (in lieu of heavily processed food typically available for purchase), but we do often go for the pizza lunch, because it requires less work when we’re leaving the house at 5am.

(All Day) Skills Challenge

What Is It?

So…what is Skills Challenge, and how does it relate to the rest of the tournament? First, it does not relate to the Qualifying or elimination matches in any way, shape, or form. It is a completely self-contained side event that is totally optional.

In The Zone - field view

Note: skills field actually looks like this, because you’re the only one on it.

If you read the rule manual Appendix B – Skills Challenge, you will see the specific rules and how they vary slightly from the rules for regular matches. In a nutshell, skills challenge involves one robot on the field, by itself, for 60 seconds, trying to score as many points as possible. Typically you can score in whichever-colored alliance goals that you want; mix-and-match is fine. You can do the 60 seconds in driver-control mode, and then again in autonomous mode (teams program 60 seconds of autonomous movement). Your tournament skills score is the sum of driver skills + programming skills.

How Does It Work at a Tournament?

Most large tournaments have a skills field, and that field is open & available for use at set hours of the day. In the morning those times often are the same time as Qualifying matches, and in the afternoon they usually end earlier, like 2pm. So if your team wants to participate in Skills Challenge they have to squeeze it in between their Qualifying matches. Teams often run driver-skills and programming-skills several times, usually until they score something they think is the most their robot can do. Some tournaments limit teams to 3 driver and 3 programming runs.

Teams do not have to do both programming and driver skills. There are many teams out there that can score more in driver skills alone than my team can score in driver & programming combined. If you do not do programming skills, you get a 0, so your score for the day is Best Driver Score + 0.

Why Should My Team Do Skills Challenge?

Why should you encourage your kids to do skills? While the top skills scorer at the tournament goes home with the big trophy, everyone else’s score matters too. Your team’s highest scores (in driver and programming) are kept in a giant ledger all year, publicly available from the main RobotEvents tournament listing page.

The top 50 teams in the world at the end of the year automatically qualify for Worlds. Those teams that are mere mortals (we were 996th in the world last year out of 5,100) also benefit from skills because state championships fill up any extra slots they have with people from the skills list, starting at the top and working their way down. This is how our team qualified for California State Championships for the Starstruck game. And honestly, it’s not because we had the most amazing skills score ever (we were ranked about 80th in CA), but rather that most of the people in CA who were better than us had already qualified for States via other avenues. So even though you’re not the top skills team in your area, you can still get a ticket to your state or regional championships.

I have found that squeezing in trips to the skills field can add more stress to the kids during the day. If there’s a long line, the kids might have to queue-up for their next match before they get a chance to go, and then they have to come back later, and get to the end of the line. HOWEVER, our team has seen the great benefit from participating in skills first-hand.

In addition, the team’s skills rank at the end of the day is specifically factored into the determination of the Excellence Award winner; if you do not do skills, you may not even be in the running. (See my other post on Judged Awards for a complete description of how Excellence judging works.)

3:45pm – Alliance Selection

Ah, alliance selection. A confusing episode for the uninitiated. It helps to start by understanding how the playoffs work.

4pm – Elimination Rounds (a.k.a. Playoffs)

tournament playoff bracketThe day’s playoffs (Elimination matches) occur at the end of the day, and function in a standard 3-round playoff bracket, starting with 8 teams, progressing through quarter-finals, semi-finals, and finals. In the quarters, the team ranked 8th plays the 1st-ranked team; 2 plays 7 and so on, just like any sports tournament. For each of those match-ups (2 vs. 7, for example), it’s a best-of-3 setup, so that you’re not booted out of the playoffs if you have one lousy match. You need TWO lousy matches to get booted from the playoffs…


This best-of-3 setup is a recipe for a LONG playoff segment. And if there’s a tie? Then there’s a FOURTH match. Oy.

The top 8 teams from the day’s Qualifying matches go to the playoffs and are “alliance captains”. But how do they compete with just one robot? Isn’t it supposed to be 2-against-2? Yes, it is! In fact, why not add a third? I am (sort of) joking here. Each of the 8 top teams gets to choose 2 robots to join them (the only time you get to choose your roommates!), for a total of 3 on each alliance team.

Why 3? Well, because robots break. Playoff matches are very fast-paced, often with hardly any time in between to return to the pits or do much of anything, including fix your robot should it break or get damaged during one of these Elimination matches. Remember, these matches come at the end of the day—your robot teams have already had 5-6 Qualifying matches, plus maybe a few skills runs. In other words, robots have been heavily used by the time you get to the playoffs.

The way the playoff matches work is that the alliance captain chooses which 2 teams will be in the first best-of-3 match. In the second best-of-3 match the robot that sat out the first match must play. It’s up to the captain to decide who else will make up the pair on the field. For third-and-later (if there’s a tie, oy) matches, the alliance captain can put in any robots to play.

Choosing Those 2 Robot Friends: Alliance Selection

How do they go about choosing those 2 other robots to make up their 3-robot group? Here’s where the fun starts.

At the end of Qualifying matches, there will be a short break, and then all teams must come to the playing field area (bleachers, theater, etc.), and each team must select one representative. Those students, one from each team (even those who finished the day in last place), all herd over to one area of the floor. They take those top-8 finishers and spread them out across the main area of the floor and it’s party time!

Starting with the #1 alliance captain (the robot that finished 1st in regular match play), they go down the line and each captain, from 1 through 8, gets to choose one partner. Then they go back up to #1 and everyone gets to pick their third alliance member. As you can imagine, all of the first-partners are going to be relatively good teams. By the time you get to the third alliance partner, you’re down to those teams that finished ~15th or below at the end of regular match play. So the 3rd alliance partners are generally significantly not-as-good as the first-round partner pick. There will thus be a total of 24 teams in the playoffs.

Inviting & Declining

InvitationThe #1 alliance captain will frequently choose the #2 or #3 team as their first-partner pick. Wait, what? You can do that? What happens to the rest of the 8 alliance spots? Well, at this point, everyone else gets bumped up one notch, and the team that finished the day in 9th place is bumped up to be the #8 alliance captain. And so on and so on throughout the picking. Our team has finished the day in 14th place and been bumped up to lead the #8 alliance because nearly all the teams in the top 8 chose each other as their first-partner pick.

What if you’rea asked, but don’t want to join their alliance? Well, if you’re captain of #2 – #8, and you really really want to be captain of your own alliance, you may decline this invitation from #1. The #1 captain chooses again from the pool of remaining teams. If you are NOT a captain of alliances #2 – #8, for the most part you must accept if you’d like to be in the playoffs. If you decline, then NO ONE ELSE can invite you to be their partner—as their 2nd alliance member OR as the 3rd alliance member. But you can still decline. Why would you want to do that?

You may decline if you think that you might get bumped up to be alliance captain yourself. If I finish the day in 9th place, and all of #1 – #8 choose each other in the first round, I get bumped all the way up to be the captain of alliance #5. In another scenario, if you finished in 9th place and the best you can hope for is to get bumped up to be captain of #8, you’re better off taking the invite, since #1 plays #8 in the first round of the quarter finals (I’ve NEVER seen a #8 beat #1, though I have heard it happens).

Once all 8 alliances have their 3-person teams set, there will be a very short break where teams can talk strategy, and teams can run back to the pits to get whatever they need. Remember, teams often have no opportunity to return to the pits after the playoffs start—we bring our entire battery box over to the queueing area, along with a bunch of tools, etc.

Then, the endless string of playoff games begins!

3-5pm – Pick Up Engineering Notebooks

Sometime in the afternoon, usually by the time Alliance Selection is complete, they will make a P.A. announcement to go to a certain table or area to retrieve your engineering notebook that you handed over in the morning. Make sure your robot teams all pick up their notebooks. Keep your ears out for this announcement! The last thing you want is to have a team lose their notebook, or be without it for however-long it takes for the organizers to send it to you. Or, god forbid, you have to drive back here and get it another day.

5:00–5:45pm – Giving of the Awards

VEX Excellence AwardOh yeah, there was that judging thing earlier in the day…

To break up the monotony of these seemingly-endless playoff matches, they typically hand out a few of the judged awards in between the quarters & semis, and between the semis & finals. So if your team did not make the playoffs, but you think they might be in line for a judged award, DO NOT LEAVE AND GO HOME. It’s pretty bad form for them to call your team up for an award only to find that you’ve all gone home (they mail it to you, I think).

The Excellence Award is always given at the very end, after the tournament winner is determined and given their trophy. The Excellence Award is described by VEX to be the top award, higher than tournament champion—hence it being handed out last. The Excellence Award is given to the robot team with the best overall robotics program, being able to take into account more than just the day’s results for tha robot, but community outreach, volunteering, etc. done by the organization too.

Who else gets to go to States depends on where you live and a bunch of other stuff. Look at the RobotEvents page for your tournament (the “awards” tab) to see which awards move your team on to the next level.

Tournament Champions & Moving Up

So, those 3 teams that were on the tournament-winning alliance, what happens to them now? Are they an alliance team forever now? No. Once those 3 teams get to States, the world resets. Everyone walking into States is handled the same as at the competition you just finished—as individual teams. Their alliance is no more. Their alliance got them all to the next level, but when they get there, they’re all individual robot teams again. (Ditto for moving from States to Worlds.)

~6pm – Heading Home

While I said “don’t leave and go home,” I did not say “don’t pack up.” Whether you’re in the playoffs or not, after alliance selection you’ll want to send some parents (and kids if you have some to spare) back to the pits to start cleaning up and clearing out. Throw away trash & half-eaten food & drinks, pack up all of the stuff that your playoff robot does not need; this will encompass most everything except batteries, toolboxes, and joystick boxes. Get that stuff out of the pits and into your cars (or bus) and then hang out for however much of the playoffs you’d like to watch. Staying to the bitter end is not required, and you’ll notice that the stands are conspicuously empty after the quarter-finals.

We are a small team—3 families last year, now 4. We have the tradition of going out to dinner at the nearest In-N-Out Burger after we leave the building (there’s always one not far away). Since we are a small group, it’s feasible to do such a thing; if you have a gigantic group, not so much. But I would encourage you to find your own fun ritual at the end of the day, especially since some days are kinda frustrating and/or disappointing. Celebrate what DID go well.

You’ve been here 11 hours. Please drive home safely.  🙂

♦        ♦        ♦

Congratulations to you, mentor, on surviving your first tournament! I hope that this post and my earlier one have proved useful to those people new to VEX.